“Studying and Teaching the Old Testament,” Ensign, Jan. 2002, 30
Studying and Teaching the Old Testament
From a talk to Church Educational System educators at Brigham Young University on 10 August 1999.
All of us need better understanding of the eternal plan of happiness. The Old Testament has a great deal to offer as our teacher.
What every person wants is happiness. And what we will want for the rest of this life and for eternity is happiness. Many of us may not know much of what happiness is or how to get it. And we may not understand much about misery or its causes. But we have had tastes of both happiness and misery. We know the difference, and we prefer happiness.
God’s great plan of happiness leads away from misery. We do not need to be convinced that a plan of happiness is a good thing. But all of us need better understanding of what it takes to follow the plan, and most of us need increased confidence that we can. Because all of us want happiness today and always will, when we feel those needs being met, we will come back to those experiences, and we will begin to practice what will bring us the capacity to endure to the end.
You might well wonder whether the Old Testament is a likely text to help us find the way of happiness. Why would we spend so much time with books which seem so far removed from the circumstances and the challenges we face? A great teacher gave me a key to that puzzle.
Read 2 Nephi 25–33.
President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), a counselor in the First Presidency, spoke on this subject 23 years ago and entitled his talk “The Message of the Old Testament.” I have read it many times and know his words are true. He said, “I do not think there is a more simple or clear and relevant explanation of the Old Testament message than the one written in chapters 25 through 33 of 2 Nephi. It would seem to me that a careful, prayerful study of these chapters would be a requirement for anyone who wanted to understand and teach the message of the Old Testament. In these chapters Nephi sifted out the important from the unimportant. He also explained how these teachings are important to us who live in the latter days” (in A Symposium on the Old Testament [address to religious educators, Brigham Young University, 16 Aug. 1979], 5).
President Romney then read these words from the 25th chapter of 2 Nephi:
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
“And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
“For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments” (2 Ne. 25:23–25).
If you study those nine short chapters of 2 Nephi commended to you by President Romney—and my purpose and prayer is that you will—you will find in them a lament for those who choose not to receive the words of God offered through His prophets. I have two reasons for wanting you to read those laments. First, they will comfort you on those days when those around you seem not to receive the words God offers them through you. It helps to know that such great prophets as Nephi and Isaiah had such days, many of them. And second, Nephi gives the reason why his words would not be received. In his description of failure there is the shadow of the way to success. That is often true in stories of scriptural tragedy when they are written by prophets. And so the recurring cycles of spiritual decline and recovery in the Old Testament can be hopeful and instructive.
For example, in the 27th chapter, the fifth verse, Nephi laments over people whose hardness of heart he foresees in the day of the Gentiles:
“For behold, the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep. For behold, ye have closed your eyes, and ye have rejected the prophets; and your rulers, and the seers hath he covered because of your iniquity.”
Later, in the 29th chapter, verse 8, he even foresees those who will reject his own words, which he knows were given him by the Savior. He gives the rebuke he knows the Lord will give in that day, words only a seer could know:
“Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.”
Receiving the Word of God
Nephi’s words make clear both the difficulty of teaching the word of God and its importance. Those who do not receive the words of God, which we are to teach, will be judged by them. President Romney has offered us help in that sacred task of teaching. I confirm his promise.
First in your preparation to teach, you must go to search the scriptures and not to wrest them. President Romney taught that great difference in the way we can approach the scriptures: “Searching them … as enjoined by Jesus is a far cry from hunting through them for the purpose of finding passages which can be pressed into service to support predetermined conclusions” (in Symposium, 2). Go to the scriptures like a child, willing to be taught, and you will be. Go like a wise man or woman, and you won’t come away the wiser.
Second, you will be taught more easily as you approach the scriptures if you search with a question and with a determination to act on the answer. We can receive what seems to us new truth when we go back to the same scripture with new questions. I went to those chapters of 2 Nephi with this question: How can I study or teach from the Old Testament in a way that makes it more likely that my students or I will find happiness now while we are together, and later when they or I may face unknown trials alone?
As I studied 2 Nephi, I tried to follow both parts of this counsel. I read the chapters carefully, repeatedly, line by line and word by word. I looked for patterns, truths that Nephi repeated, ideas he restated more than once. I found a pattern. I will share it with you in the hope that it will encourage you to search for yourself. What I found has been useful to me. It may be to you. My hope is that you will search the scriptures with a desire to be taught what you should do.
For me, there seemed to be a repeated message in the teaching of Nephi, which gave me an answer to my question. It is this: The words of God given by prophets will only be received by those with the spirit of prophecy, a gift of the Spirit, which both follows from and confirms the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Nephi makes clear first that what we need now and will need later is something he calls the spirit of prophecy. Here is the fourth verse of the 25th chapter of 2 Nephi:
“Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.”
Then he speaks again of prophecy in the 26th verse, but here he makes clear its relation to the testimony of Jesus. We will find the words of prophets plain when we have the spirit of prophecy, and that will depend on our testimony of Jesus Christ. Notice how Nephi used that fact:
“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”
Then Nephi went on to teach that to receive the words of prophets we must obey them. It will not be enough for us to know that the words are true or even to understand them plainly. We must obey, or the conviction of truth will fade and the meaning will become obscure. Notice the 30th verse of the 28th chapter:
“For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”
Then, as if Nephi knows how hard the road ahead may be for us, he describes what it will take to endure. It will take the courage and the fortitude that comes only to those whose testimony of Jesus Christ has led them to obey to the point that they are filled with hope and charity sufficient for the journey. Note the requirement and the promise in the 20th verse of the 31st chapter:
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.”
Nephi makes plain that the spirit of prophecy and the testimony of Jesus are gifts which must be sought in prayer. And it is clear that he does not exempt himself. Note what he says in the fourth verse of the 32nd chapter:
“Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
“For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.”
Then in the eighth and ninth verses Nephi extends the instruction to pray:
“And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.
“But behold I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Ne. 32:8–9).
Now, after warning us that we must pray, Nephi teaches us by his example. In the fourth verse of the 33rd chapter:
“And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.”
For me, there emerged at least the beginning of an answer to my question.
You will remember that my question was: How can I study or teach from the Old Testament in a way that makes it more likely that my students or I will find happiness now while we are together, and later when they or I may face unknown trials alone? My answer: My students and I will receive the words of the prophets when they and I have the spirit of prophecy and the testimony of Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost will tell them and me what to do. When we obey, we will have more light given us. When we disobey, the light will in time be withdrawn. Prayer will be our ally. And even in this difficult life we can find peace which living the gospel brings and the hope of eternal life in the world to come, the greatest of all the gifts of God. That is how my students and I will find the happiness we seek, now and later.
I encourage you once again to go in search of answers to other questions. President Romney said that Nephi could teach us what is important in the Old Testament. For instance, Nephi teaches that God sends prophets to warn of destruction. He makes plain that it is love for the people and for God that leads him and other prophets to speak so bluntly of sin. He speaks of his own human struggles. Surely those themes are a beginning of the answer to the question you might ask: “What will be of most worth to my students and me in what we study from the Old Testament?”
Four Suggestions for Studying and Teaching the Old Testament
Now let me give you the lessons I have learned from following the counsel of President Romney.
First, I would be more eager to be taught. I would listen to others, as if I believed the Spirit could teach me through their words. I would go to every class I could, expecting to learn from whoever was called to teach me. I would read and ponder the materials I was given. I would read the scriptures. I would plead in prayer to be taught from on high. Now there are practical limits to the time I could spend, but no limits on how determined to be taught I could be.
Second, I would think more often and more carefully about the Savior and His mission. So much of the Old Testament can be taught as dramatic stories, fascinating customs, and beautiful literary forms. But I will sense a greater happiness, a deeper appreciation when I study or teach of times when prophets spoke of Jehovah and when the people received the words and turned toward Him. I would sense sorrow when the people turned away from the promised Savior of mankind and toward misery. I can make you a promise if you do that: the Spirit will come and you will sense less of the sordid wickedness of the people, of their abominations, and more of the love of their God, who warned them against iniquity and idolatry, who begged them to come to Him, and who, even in their wickedness and misery, kept reaching after them.
Third, I would put more effort into coming to know prophets as personally as I could. I would read in the book of Abraham and the book of Moses not only for doctrines but to know their hearts. I would try to feel what Job felt and what Jeremiah felt. I would work and pray to know the character and the trials of the prophets. I can make you a promise because I have tried it. I have tried to be with Nephi at the end of his ministry. I read those chapters in 2 Nephi over and over. I did it to learn how to teach the Old Testament. But I got more. I came to love him as I had never done before. When I see him in some future time and place, he will see more affection in my eyes, and more admiration.
And last, I would more carefully invite the Holy Ghost as my companion. Others wouldn’t see much of what I do, since so much would be in private, but they would sense the change in me as the Spirit softened my nature. They would notice it in my being a little more patient, a little more interested in them, a little less likely to argue or belittle, a little more likely to smile. And they would notice not only that I seemed more happy but that they are more happy when they are around me. The Holy Ghost will teach us all things we should do to please God and thus take happiness with us.
I bless you that you might, in this year of studying and teaching the Old Testament, be drawn closer to Him. I bless you that you may have assurance that the Savior loves you and is concerned for you, that in the years ahead you may taste the sweet fruit of knowing that He appreciates your efforts to study and teach from the Old Testament.